Update: Corvallis Still Leaving Minority-Owned Businesses Behind

On July 12, The Corvallis Advocate published an article covering the City government’s lack of a defined outreach process for minority-owned businesses, particularly on the north side of downtown, to find out what they need to stay open during the pandemic.   

The article revealed that while the Economic Development Office (EDO) worked closely with the Downtown Corvallis Association (DCA) to create a permit program that allows businesses to operate in the right of way, the same effort was not given to assisting north side businesses – many of which are Latinx-owned – in taking advantage of relaxed parking requirements.   

While a manager at a Latinx-owned business expressed gratitude for improved translation services provided by EDO, interviews with some business owners revealed a general frustration regarding the City’s focus on supporting downtown businesses while neglecting others. Other business owners did not have any idea that the city was doing something to support them.  

This perception is despite the EDO reaching out to more than 600 businesses individually via “support calls” from the start of the pandemic to late June. Based on those calls, businesses were also sent “personalized resources” and some were connected to the Small Business Development Center. However, when it comes to providing outreach material to Latinx business owners, at least one recovery document, the “Back to Business Guide,” was not translated into Spanish for over a month after being published in English.  

After receiving complaints from some of those interviewed that the article did not paint the situation fairly, The Advocate decided to publish a follow up article that gave EDO, DCA, and Mayor Biff Traber the opportunity to clear the air and make an explicit commitment to improving community outreach for minority-owned business as well as to promoting social equity generally.   

The DCA, EDO, and the mayor declined multiple requests for an interview, but were willing to respond to questions via email. Below are the questions sent to Traber as well as his response written in full:  

Questions for The Mayor:  

  1. Does the mayor recognize that racism has shaped U.S. economies and that minority-owned businesses need more support from their government to survive in a market built to exclude them?
  1. Is the mayor aware that most of the outreach conducted by EDO is done via organizations that may have an agenda that does not favor all Corvallis businesses? 
  1. Would the mayor prefer to see a more inclusive setup that prioritizes businesses that are struggling more due to the pandemic and systemic racism?
  1. What specific steps will the mayor take to ensure historically marginalized residents (e.g. Latinx, BIPOC) and their businesses are not an afterthought in pandemic recovery policies?
  1. Will the mayor help organize and promote community events in the north side of Corvallis similar to Crazy Days and the downtown farmers market (providing these events can be safely executed during the pandemic)?
  1. Does the mayor support adding equity language to most if not all policies and programs regarding economic and social wellbeing in the City of Corvallis?
  1. Which community leaders and organizations will the mayor include in the various processes described above?

The Mayor’s Response  

I recognize that our racist history has shaped our current economy. Further, I believe we need to do more to support those businesses and enable them to have the opportunity to thrive like all businesses should.”  

“The city/county EDO does work with local business organizations to deal with and survive the impacts of the pandemic. These efforts have moved forward in rapid fashion, far faster than our typical city processes, to help businesses as quickly as possible during the pandemic recovery and reopening. This work has included outreach to minority owned businesses. These include setting aside funds for minority owned businesses, translating outreach materials, and directly communicating with minority owned businesses.”  

Note: The mayor appears to be referring to the $45,000 set aside for minority-owned businesses out of the $150,000 that Benton County and Community Lending Works provided for small business relief during the recovery. In a written response, DCA Executive Director Jennifer Moreland cited details of this effort as evidence of the City’s commitment to minority-owned businesses, saying “30% of those loan funds were specifically reserved for minority and rural-owned businesses. They provided all materials in English and Spanish, and did not require social security numbers on applications, in order to allow non-citizens to apply for the program. At that time, neither the federal nor the state government had funds available for business owners without social security numbers.”  

However, as mentioned above, the “Back to Business Guide” was not translated into Spanish for over a month after it was available in English. After multiple requests, neither the mayor nor EDO would confirm which minority-owned businesses and/or organizations specifically serving minority-owned businesses the City has partnered with in the recovery processes.   

The mayor’s response continued: “Other city departments have taken steps as part of the work of the Emergency Operation Center to help businesses during the pandemic. One example is the changes in regulation to enable use of public and private parking for outdoor business use – dining and retail. The private parking changes were available first, providing early opportunity to those businesses in traditional malls.”  

Note: The mayor is referring to two efforts the City has made to support small businesses, particularly eateries, during the pandemic. While both of these programs exist and can support many Corvallis businesses, the EDO did not conduct the same level of outreach for the program that would most benefit businesses on the north side of town, many of which are Latinx-owned. Part of the reason for this is because the strong, pre-existing partnership with the DCA guaranteed a robust outreach process for downtown businesses only.  

The City not informing some business owners of these programs was the central issue addressed in the first article The Corvallis Advocate published.   

Angel Harris, the president of the Corvallis/Albany chapter of the NAACP, noted that this is not a new problem. “If you don’t even know there is a program happening in your city, and you are a business, how do you apply for that program if no one tells you it is even happening?” Harris said. “I can’t even tell you how many times that has happened.”  

Traber’s response continued: “I support adding equity language and equity impact analysis to all policy decisions made by city council. I look to our advisory boards and community organizations to help us understand how best to do that.”   

Note: Neither the Economic Development Strategy nor the Council Policy Manual mentions racial equity in their text. The Mayor would not state which advisory boards or organizations the City would work with to craft the proposed equity language.   

City Bureaucratic Response:  

On July 29, the City of Corvallis issued a response to a similar list of questions directed at the EDO:  

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has moved with urgency to support the entire Corvallis community through emergency investment, targeted programs, and partnerships with other local service agencies. We have a diverse team, comprised of city and county employees across different offices, working in the Emergency Operations Center to focus specifically on the needs of vulnerable and under-represented populations that may be struggling as a result of the pandemic. These supportive measures took priority even as the City maintained its core services (public safety, emergency medical services, clean water delivery, wastewater treatment) without disruption. As we move into recovery and reopening, we will continue to refine these programs within the scope of our available resources to ensure they are relevant and useful to their target audiences.”  

Note: Due to an apparent lack of a defined outreach process for minority owned-businesses and the systemic racism acknowledged by the mayor, these promises do not appear to be easy ones to keep.   

One Proposed Solution: A Business Registry  

In the previous article, President of the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce Simon Date identified the lack of a register of Corvallis businesses as one of the core challenges to his organization when conducting outreach for programs like the two mentioned above. While the Oregon Secretary of State Corporation Division offers a register of all the businesses with “Corvallis” in their name, this 1,000-item list likely excludes many businesses.   

During Date’s time in a similar role in the St. Helens/Scappoose area, he saw the benefits of having a more comprehensive register, even if not all businesses choose to be part: If we know who is doing business in the city, then we are obviously in better shape when it comes to, not just things like a pandemic, where we need to get information out to as many business owners as possible, but also we get a better sense of who our members are.”  

Date admits he may be the loudest advocate for such a register, and believes that City workers conducting outreach to minority-owned businesses “are doing about as good a job as they can do given the resources that they have,” but he is confident the traditional outreach methods from the City aren’t enough right now.   

Lack of trust in the government may be a part of the problem. Date noted that minority business owners have good reasons to be wary of asking the government for help, whereas people don’t have the same “negative perception” towards the Chamber. For this reason, he believes the Chamber should be responsible for creating the register.  

Putting himself in the shoes of a minority business owner in the current national climate, Date said, “I don’t want to put my hand in the air and say, ‘hey, look at me, I’m over here and I would love some help,’” from the government. “If that’s a concern, we have to address it, and I think it is easier for me to address that then it is for the City to address it.”  

Despite this advantage, Date believes the Chamber would have a tougher time than the City to fund a register of Corvallis businesses. The register would likely require at least one part time employee to monitor and update, which he estimates might cost businesses $25 dollars a year or more to be on the register after the first year or two. To avoid that cost and to keep the entry barriers for minority-owned businesses low, he suggested the City might contribute some funding.  

Downtown Corvallis Association Skeptical   

Moreland is skeptical of a register. When asked via email whether she would support the creation of a business registry so no small businesses fall through the cracks of any outreach in the future, she replied, “How will new (incoming) small businesses know there is a registry? Is registration required by local ordinance? How will registration be enforced? Will penalties for failing to register hurt new small businesses?”  

Date acknowledged that the Chamber wouldn’t be able to require businesses to register, making it easier for some to continue falling through the cracks, but still believes a Chamber register would improve upon what exists today.   

NAACP President Responds 

Whatever the solution to improving outreach might be, Harris sees another problem compounding any lack of trust minority business owners might have. “Let’s be honest: who is normally in the room? Who is making most of the decisions? (They) are white males,” said Harris, who believes there is a risk of being too inward looking when conducting outreach in a small community where everyone seems to know everyone else. “We may gravitate towards those who have similar interests as us, and that’s just normal, but we have to go out of our own comfort zones to say, ‘what about this over here?’” 
Harris sees potential when it comes to improving outreach to marginalized members of the community, and had no harsh words for the mayor or the City. While she agrees there is a problem, she also believes there is a desire to create positive change: “We are all trying to be better, so let’s do better.”  

According to Harris, adding equity language and an equity impact analysis to all policy decisions made by city council would be a start.  

By Henry Miller